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The Five Stages of Change for Small Business Owners

By Susan L. Reid, DMA

Change is a tricky thing. Some of us like change. Others of us don't. Some of us like some change some of the time. Others of us will do all that we can to maintain the status quo and cling to what is known and familiar. Yet, change is. Change happens.

If you are someone contemplating the changes that will occur by becoming a successful small business owner, it will be helpful for you to have a bird's eye view of where you are along the continuum. So, too, if you are a small business coach working with clients who are in the process of starting up their own businesses, it will be good for you to have a way to determine which stage of change they are in so you can plan an effective start-up coaching strategy to meet each client's needs.

To that end, Dr. James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente developed the Transtheoretical Model of Change in 1982 that has been applied to everything from weight loss to drug addiction with great success and acclaim. The difference between this model of change and other models is that this one doesn't tell you how to change or what you must do to change. Rather, it describes the stages of change so that individuals and those in the helping professions (that would include business coaches) can see which stage they are in.

Though Prochaska and DiClemente's model has never before been applied to those considering starting up a successful small business, it is a very relevant model that will help take the pressure off individuals thinking they should be further along than where they are, and it will provide a compassionate understanding of where each person is along the scale.

Three Great Things about the Stages of Change

Prochaska and DiClemente's Transtheoretical Model of Change identifies five stages of change: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action and maintenance.

  • The first great thing about this model is that each stage is considered a step, and each step is meant to be taken in sequence.
  • The second great thing about this model is that it is cyclical.
  • The third great thing about this model is that there are no prescribed limits as to how long individuals should take to move from one stage to the next, nor are there any rules as to how long the overall process should take.

The Five Stages

Keep in mind that change is a process, not an event. Just "follow the Yellow Brick Road."

1. The Precontemplation Stage (Not Currently Considering Change)

This stage could really be called "the precursor-to-change" stage. This is the pre-small business start-up stage when individuals may not even be thinking about becoming small business owners. In fact, in this stage, they may not even be aware that it would be beneficial for them to make a change, though other individuals around them may be thinking that they should.

Precontemplation is the pre-change stage where, as of yet, there has been no personally convincing reason for change. There may just be the niggling odd sensation that change is in the air. Content to keep the status quo and with no compelling reason to actually think about making a change, this stage's motto is: Ignorance is bliss.

How to know if you are in the Precontemplation Stage:

  1. You're not really thinking about starting up a small business.
  2. You are basically okay with how things are.
  3. Others may be voicing their concerns about the hours you are keeping, the stress you seem to be under or how much you need to take a vacation.

Those in this stage do not intend to take action within the next six months and have a decided lack of readiness to do so.  

2. The Contemplation Stage (Thinking about Change and Researching Options)

In the Contemplation Stage, individuals are aware that a change is needed and they actually desire to make a change. Although they are seriously thinking about change, they have no clear plan of action because they are feeling ambivalent about change. This stage's motto is: Just sitting on the fence waiting to see what will come along. It is a time of inward seeking and searching.

How to know if you are in the Contemplation Stage:

  1. You find yourself going to the library, doing online research and thinking about what it would be like to be a small business owner.
  2. You seek out the perspective of others who have "been there, done that" and consider their advice.
  3. You find yourself attracted to magazines and online journals about entrepreneurship and small business ownership.

Those in this stage are considering taking action within the next six months.

3. The Preparation Stage (Ready for Change and Making Plans)

This stage of change is readily apparent by the amount of activity, decisions and overt action that is taking place in preparation for a small business start-up. During this stage, individuals look outside themselves for assistance or help, and ask, "What steps do I need to take to make this happen?"

This is a time of exploring options and planning how and when the start-up process will begin. This is not a time for quick decisions. Instead, it is a time for thinking, talking, drawing, writing and then doing it all again. It is a time to look at every angle, to weigh the pros and cons, and to connect the dots to successful small business ownership. This is the perfect time to hire a small business start-up coach and get the transition wheel primed and pumped. This stage's motto is: I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.

How to know if you are in The Preparation Stage:

  1. Your small business start-up coach has become your best friend.
  2. Your white board or mind mapping software is getting a daily workout as you look at every aspect of small business ownership.
  3. You are regularly experiencing both excitement and fear, although you can't tell how much of either you are feeling at any given time.

Individuals in this stage are intending to take action within the next month.

4. The Action Stage (Making Change and Taking Charge)

This stage is characterized by a considerable amount of steady, forward movement. The planning that was done in the previous stage is being put into action plans that are well-conceived and formulated. All the necessary paper work is filled out, business checking accounts opened, company name registered, business cards selected, website developed and strategic action plans mapped out.

This is the time when businesses are started and launched, when new ways of being in the world are experienced and when excitement and satisfaction are high. The motto for this stage is: Carpe Diem.

How to know if you are in the Action Stage:

  1. You are in full-out action mode.
  2. You're spending most of your day focused on your new small business and loving it.
  3. Each new day brings something new for you to do, be or have.
  4. You are committed to seeing your actions through.

Individuals in this stage are taking action.

5. The Maintenance Stage (Continuing Forward Movement towards Goal)

By this stage, individuals are firmly ensconced in the forward movement and momentum of launching and servicing their new small business. Every day there is a new opportunity for growth and expansion, for learning something new and meeting new individuals. Continued commitment to sustaining the forward movement of their small business success is the goal of this stage. The motto of this stage is: Westward, ho!

How to know if you are in the Maintenance Stage:

  1. Your business is running smoothly.
  2. You have begun cycling back through the stages of change to further develop and expand the growth of your small business.
  3. You are actively looking for new opportunities for change and growth.

Individuals in this stage are continuing momentum.

In Praise of Prochaska and DiClemente's Transtheoretical Model of Change

As has been demonstrated, Prochaska and DiClemente's Transtheoretical Model can be easily adapted to the stages of change that occur in small business start-ups. Though it doesn't tell you how or why individuals change, it does accurately pinpoint where an individual is in the change process. The reason why this is so attractive is that change can be viewed on an individual basis, according to each individual's needs.

Individuals considering whether they are ready to become small business owners need no longer be left with the question of "if." Rather, they can easily find a clear answer to where they are along the change continuum. As a result, they themselves become powerful and effective agents for change. What's more, they learn that change, while life-altering, can be life-affirming and life-enhancing.

Susan L. Reid, DMA, is a business coach and consultant for entrepreneurial women starting up businesses. She specializes in taking the fear out of starting up a business. Susan is the author of Discovering Your Inner Samurai: The Entrepreneurial Woman's Journey to Business Success. Her website is Alkamae.com. Learn more about Susan in the WABC Member Directory.

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